Summarizing & Organizing Social Studies Research Data

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discover several different methods to organize research data for a social studies project or paper, including outlines, thought webs, and the importance of summation.


Big papers or big projects can be a daunting. Sometimes, you may finish all of your research, but have no idea how to synthesize the material, while other times you may not even be sure where to start. That is why it is important to always have a plan that works for you and also helps you organize your work for a specific project.

This is especially true in social sciences work--where research for even a small paper can pile up quickly. In this lesson, we will explore some of the strategies you can employ when tackling such a project.


It is important to note that with social sciences research there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach for each project or each student. The methods we detail below are some methods that have proven effective over the years, but might not be effective for you or for every project.

So, try a few out and if you begin working with an organizational method, and if it proves more difficult to understand the method than the material you are trying to organize, discard it and try again. These are supposed to be tools to help you understand the material and organize your thoughts, not the opposite!


Regardless of the organizational method you choose, it is important when doing social science research to be able to summarize. After all, depending on the subject, you will likely end up with reams of data or have perused shelves full of books. You must be able to summarize all that data into concise and manageable points before you can even begin to think about your project or paper.

If you are having trouble summarizing info, there are some signposts you can look to for help with this. For example, in data sets, does the same result crop up repeatedly? If so, this is probably important to note. Similarly, if you are researching books, look for the topic sentence of each paragraph or re-read the opening and closing paragraphs of a chapter. Often, this is where writers introduce or emphasize their main points.


Once you are able to determine the main points or themes of your research, you need to be able to organize all these thoughts and ideas into a clear structure that makes sense to you and makes sense for your project. Below are a few different ways to do this.


An outline can be an incredibly useful tool. Outlines generally set out each main point of your research as headings. Though it varies depending on the breadth of the research, a good outline will usually feature 3-5 main headings. Beneath those main headings, the subheadings are generally statements or points which support the claim made in the main heading. Each sub-heading will generally feature either another sub-heading (if necessary) or the evidence you have gathered during your research which supports that sub-heading.

Outlines are incredibly useful for a couple reasons. First, they lay out your research in clear, organized formats. Sometimes, simply by beginning the process of creating an outline you might realize new themes within your research which can then be fit into your outline. Secondly, outlines are incredibly useful when writing. For example, if you have done research for a three-page essay, your outline can often serve as your writing roadmap, with the main headings being the topics of your paragraphs. The same works for research outlines of larger projects, where outline headings can correspond to thesis or book chapters.

Thought Web

Thought webs function on the same basic principle as an outline: they organize your thoughts into coherent groups with main points, supporting themes and evidence. But thought webs can be more helpful for students who are visual learners.

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